Sheet Music Spotlight: Pop Goes the Weasel

"Pop goes the weasel." J. Sage and Sons, Buffalo, 1854.

“Pop goes the weasel.” J. Sage and Sons, Buffalo, 1854.

The following is a guest post from retired cataloger Sharon McKinley.

All around the mulberry bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought it was all in fun,
Pop! goes the weasel.

I recently ran into an unexpected and amusing piece of music which proved to have a long and varied history. The piece? “Pop goes the weasel.” What I found amusing was that it had exhaustive dance directions printed on the last page. I think of “Pop goes the weasel“ as a children’s game. In this 1856 edition arranged by John C. Scherpf, it’s a country dance with instructions credited to Eugene Coulon, a well-known international dancing-master. No lyrics here, except for the tag line, “Pop goes the weasel,” which matches the choreography perfectly. I’m an enthusiastic English Country dancer, and the dance looks like fun to me. I started nosing around to see what else we own, and ended up going in directions I never would have thought of.

The next version I looked at is dated 1853, three years earlier than Scherpf’s edition. This modest arrangement is meant to accompany the dance and also has instructions on the last page of music. As in the Scherpf version, the dance has been “lately introduced at Her Majesty’s and Nobilities balls” in England, and indeed, the first mention I found of its publication there is also 1853.  Arranger Jason W. Porter worked fast to get the latest dance craze to an eager American public. The composer-publisher even squeezed in a shout-out to a local dance academy. No credits to far-away dancing masters for Porter; he was far more interested in his own community.

Within a year, the presentation of the tune had changed completely, presented with “easy & brilliant variations” arranged by Louis S.D. Rees. This bravura version introduces the theme as a jig, as in the original, but the variations are in 2/4 and 4/4, much better for showing off fast fingerwork. No dancing to this one!

A guitar version with words was published in 1857. Here we’ve left the realm of dance behind completely, and the text is political in nature.

Always looking for illustrated covers, I was happy to stumble upon this strange picture you see at the top of this post, which depicts a seemingly headless man chasing a weasel. This 1854 edition includes only the tag line of the words and has dance directions at the end.

As for the children’s rhyme, the history of the nonsense song I know from my childhood led me to American Folklife Center colleagues Stephanie A. Hall and Jennifer Cutting, who provided some background on the rhyme and the tune. Here is a field recording made in Virginia by Alan and Karen Singer Jabbour of fiddler Henry Reed in 1966, and the music transcription.

“Pop goes the weasel” is the closing tune on this 1918 medley by the Victor  Military Band:

An article by Bill McNeil in the Ozarks mountaineer of March/April 1994 includes a version of the rhyme with 16 verses, along with McNeil’s interpretation of the history. It’s available in the American Folklife Center.

Sources make different suggestions as to the history and meaning of the lyrics, with a few standing out. In some form, the rhyme likely goes back as far as the 1600s.  One possible source of the “pop!” is the spinner’s weasel, or clock reel, a device for winding and measuring yarn. It makes a popping sound when the correct amount has been wound. Others ascribe the tag line to Cockney rhyming slang.

A clock reel, or weasel, can be seen in this engraving. "To the right hon'able the Earl of Moira, this plate, taken on the spot in the County of Downe, representing spinning, reeling with the clock reel, and boiling the yarn; is most respectfully dedicated by ... Wm. Hincks." London : Publish'd as the Act directs, by R. Pollard, Spafields, 1791 June 20.

A clock reel, or weasel, can be seen in this engraving. “To the right hon’able the Earl of Moira, this plate, taken on the spot in the County of Downe, representing spinning, reeling with the clock reel, and boiling the yarn; is most respectfully dedicated by … Wm. Hincks.” London : Publish’d as the Act directs, by R. Pollard, Spafields, 1791 June 20.

By the time the rhyme and tune arrived on our shores, I’m sure the origin of the text had already been lost. The words developed in various ways here, as they did back in England. From an English nonsense rhyme with any number of verses, it turned into an American blackface minstrel song with equally nonsensical verses. We own a few different arrangements of this version. Charley Twiggs’s 1855 song includes what seem to be the “standard” minstrel show verses, with the addition of a few more verses with topical political overtones.

This was a whole new world of discovery for me, as my visits with the Library’s collections so often are. Oh, and I may try out the dance with my English Country Dance group. I leave you with these words of wisdom:

That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

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